Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category


Space Cowboys On Green Steroids

Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Sorry, no Clint Eastwood.

The following review contains minor spoilers.

Ever since I read Starship Troopers, I’ve been interested in military sci-fi. Unfortutately, most authors who have tried to replicate Heinlein’s masterpiece (such as John Steakley) have come up short. While on a wikiquest, I came across the article for the author John Scalzi, and learned he was behind the bacon cat meme. That was enough to get me interested in his debut work, Old Man’s War, with which I was pleasantly surprised. Old Man’s War is an entertaining military SF novel, and an excellent debut for an author who shows a lot of promise.

Whenever I pick up a new novel off the bookstore shelf, I turn to the first page of the first chapter and look for the author’s hook (i.e. the first line). They say first impressions are important; a good author realizes this, and writes the first line of his book accordingly. An ideal hook piques the reader’s interest so that he is inclined to read on. Alternatively, a bad hook (such as the overused phrase ‘it was a dark and stormy night’) will often times cause a reader to rapidly lose interest. You can tell a lot about an author by how good his hook is. John Scalzi began Old Man’s War as follows:

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

This is a good hook. Not only does it inform us about the narrator without deluging us with too much information, it also creates an unusual situation which warrants further explanation. This hook successfully pulls the reader into the story, and indicates that John Scalzi has at least some level of writing skill.

Old Man’s War protagonist is a widower named John Perry. He has joined up with the Colonial Defense Forces, the military arm of the enigmatic Colonial Union. In the future, habitable planets in our galaxy are hard to come by, mainly due to the large number of intelligent, spacefaring species that compete for the same real estate humanity wants. The Colonial Union serves as a kind of human colonial authority: they are not associated with any particular government, religion or ethic group, but they control all human interstellar activity thanks to their monopoly on the skip drive (Scalzi’s version of FTL). They are primarily responsible for protecting humanity’s interests, and ensuring that the human race has room to expand. Naturally, with so many races competing for so few planets, war is inevitable. The Colonial Defense Forces, or CDF, find themselves fighting constant battles against a variety of alien opponents.

The novel is similar to most military SF in structure: it follows its protagonist through initial training, boot camp, his subsequent assignment to a squad, and several battles. The novel’s pacing is rapid; Scalzi does not dwell too long on any particular battle, preferring instead to provide the reader with an overview of Perry’s first year (or so) of military service. Although this pacing keeps the novel fresh and interesting, I couldn’t help wishing Scalzi had taken more time to describe the various alien foes and battle scenes in more detail. This novel could have easily been 25-50% longer and still been just as interesting.

Scalzi is an excellent author; he keeps his writing at a level of complexity accessible to most college-age readers, only throwing in the occasional thesaurus word. He does not dwell on description, preferring to focus on character dialogue and brief overviews. Additionally, he has a well-developed but not overbearing sense of humor, even when dealing with the serious subjects of war and death. Overall, this makes for a very enjoyable and casual reading experience.

Of course, this novel was not without its problems. One particular annoyance I had was with Scalzi’s ‘asshole characters’; i.e. characters that have a particularly massive character flaw that makes them annoying or obnoxious. Every asshole character introduced into Old Man’s War is quickly killed off in the same chapter they are introduced… Scalzi’s form of ‘just deserts’, I suppose. Here are some examples:

-A fat and opinionated racist, who suffers a stroke

-An excitable, loudmouthed hothead, who has his head blasted off

-A former senator/ambassador, who advocates making peace with aliens: during his initial effort to do so, he is melted by acid (I smell political commentary!)

Although these incidents may provide the reader (and author) with a small ‘they got what’s coming to them’ chuckle, they nevertheless represent a narrative flaw. The assholes in real life are never conveniently killed off for our benefit… we have to deal with them on a day-to-day basis. Imagining that such people will be killed off in happy accidents is daydream material at best… after all, we all know that assholes usually wind up being promoted to management. 😉

Another problem I had with Old Man’s War was the main characters’ behavior. John Perry and his friends are supposed to be 75-year-old geriatrics who got new, young (and green) bodies… however, they don’t act like it. They act like twenty-something kids, right down to the language they use and their continual urge to have sex. (On a related note, only the first portion of the novel contains sex, and it is not graphically described.) I will admit that the latter can be explained by the characters’ desire to experiment with their new bodies… but I still think that elderly minds would have more emotional restraint. It almost seems as if Scalzi doesn’t know how old people think… so he imposes the mannarisms of younger characters onto older ones.

Aside from those two issues, the other flaws in the novel are minor and hardly worth mentioning. Overall, Old Man’s War is an extremely entertaining military science fiction adventure… a definite cut above most of the other military SF out there. Its tone is similar to Starship Troopers, but it doesn’t contain the political lectures Heinlein was so fond of. I recommend reading it if you’re into military SF, although it may not satisfy some of the more hardcore military readers. I plan to (eventually) read both of the sequels, The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony.

Old Man’s War gets 7.5 out of 10 Xore Points.

–Next Up: I’ll review Orphanage, another military SF work from Robert Buettner.

P.S. I almost forgot the obligatory link to John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever. It’s a funny site, so take a look!


April 2019
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